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11 Tips When Shopping For a Used Car

Updated on September 26, 2012

My New Ride

My new ride (well, new to me anyway). It's not the prettiest but it sure beats walking.
My new ride (well, new to me anyway). It's not the prettiest but it sure beats walking. | Source

Are You Looking for a Used Car?

Buying a used car doesn't have to be a stressful situation. If handled properly, it can actually be quite exciting (or is it just me who thinks so?).

I very recently bought a used SUV, which is 21 years old. It is not the prettiest vehicle out there, but the price was right and it will get me from point A to point B. As the caption says, it sure beats walking. And when one lives 10 miles out of town, walking isn't really an option.

I have bought a few different used vehicles over the years (the majority of them were decided on by my ex-husband, but I do have to say he knows his cars). I did learn what to look for and what to avoid, and the SUV is only my second purchase I have made almost entirely on my own.

Tips and Reasoning

There are many factors to consider when buying a used vehicle. While some are purely cosmetic, the important ones must be considered first.

  1. Check the oil. If the oil has been recently changed, it might be best to walk away at this point. While the seller may tell you it was due for a change, chances are it was blacker than night. New oil in a used vehicle is enough to set off alarm bells.
  2. Check the transmission fluid. Here again, look for signs of new oil. Transmission oil isn't changed as frequently as engine oil, but if it appears to be straight out of the jug check for leaks and slipping gears. It may be using it or may have a major leak somewhere.
  3. Look under the vehicle. Don't feel bad about getting down on the ground and looking at the bottom of the vehicle. If there are any leaks, you should notice them. If the undercarriage has been recently washed, take the vehicle for a drive and look again. You should be able to see any leaks after taking it for a few mile drive.
  4. Check the radiator. This was one thing I missed when looking at the SUV I recently purchased. When I checked it at home a couple days later, it was low. I am hoping that isn't a sign of a bigger problem.
  5. Inquire about mileage. If you are interested in saving money on fuel, find out what the vehicle gets for mileage. If the person is honest, they may say they don't know or will give you a reasonable figure. With the SUV I purchased I was told they had never calculated it, but they filled it up twice a month (it was used mostly for work, which was about a mile trip each way). My use of the vehicle will be for longer trips, as the nearest town is 10 miles away, so I know it will need to be refueled more often than twice a month. It is also important to know the mileage on the vehicle itself. Calculating the mileage on it in relation to the year of the vehicle should give you a pretty good idea of how much it was driven.
  6. Check the tires. First of all, be sure the tires are all the same. If each one is a different brand or size, you are most likely asking for trouble. Check to see if the tire wear is even or if there is more wear on one side. A tire with uneven wear means there could be potential front end work that needs to be done, such as tie-rod ends or ball joints.
  7. Check the steering. Buying a vehicle without first taking it for a test drive is asking for trouble. If it tends to pull toward one side or the other while in motion, there is front end work that needs to be done.
  8. Check the brakes. Press on the brakes hard to see if they respond quickly, and also listen for squealing, squeaking or grinding. If you hear any of these sounds, it may be best to pass on the vehicle.
  9. Check the acceleration. Also see how well it responds to acceleration; any hesitations could mean a faulty carburetor or fuel injection system (the year of vehicle will determine which system is in place).
  10. Check the windows and doors. Be sure all of the windows open and the doors and locks work. Crank windows generally do not have problems, but when it comes to power windows any problems are quickly noticed (but expensively rectified).
  11. Go over the body, electrical, interior and check the fuel tank. I don't mind a bit of rust, and in older vehicles it is pretty tough to avoid it. One think to check for inside the vehicle is accelerator, brake and clutch (if a standard) pedal wear. If there is a lot of wear you know the vehicle has been driven excessively. Exercise caution, as it may well be on its last. Be sure all of the lights are working, as well as wipers and horn (I missed this in my SUV).

Bonus Tip: Know the price range. Knowing how much a used vehicle is worth will save you a lot of grief. One of the best resources (and one I use every time I am contemplating buying another vehicle) is the Kelley Blu Book. I highly recommend it, as it will give you vehicle options and will calculate the price with the features you provide. My latest purchase was right on the money in terms of the book, as well as other like-vehicles. Do your research first.

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Don't Let Salesmen Pull the Wool Over your Eyes

When I bought my minivan in 2007, the salesman at the dealership underestimated me. He thought just because I was a woman I wouldn't have the first clue about anything when it came to vehicles. He had that "I know it all, and you know nothing" attitude. I do have to say, I'm pretty sure I was more educated in terms of vehicles than he was. Sure he could talk the talk, but when it came to walking the walk he stumbled several times.

The first van I took for a test drive was very comfortable and had heated leather seats. I was very impressed - until we actually started moving. It pulled so hard to the right my arm got sore keeping it on the street. He also gave me a BS line about the lights on the dash being able to tell me if my kids weren't buckled up. I know the lights come on when the vehicle is started, but they do not stay on the entire time. There is not a passenger in every seat all the time; who was he trying to kid?

When I decided on the van I ended up buying, I checked for the gas cap, only to find it missing. When I asked about it he said no one had ever checked for that before. I told him I wasn't like most people, and I wanted a gas cap when I came to pick it up. The windshield was badly cracked as well, and I insisted they replace it free of charge. The manager agreed, and the paperwork was done. When I went to pick it up once financing was confirmed, the first thing I checked for was the gas cap. It was still missing. I asked the salesman about it, and he came back with one which I'm positive he took out of another vehicle.

The windshield was replaced within a week of purchase, and the van did me great service until November 2011. I put a lot of miles on it and it left me stranded by the side of the road when the engine blew. Hindsight is 20/20 and I realized it was error on my part, but that is a whole different story for another time perhaps.

Some Final Thoughts

When it comes to picking your next vehicle, it is wise to make a list of features you want. Check the Classified Ads and compare prices and features. Don't be afraid to ask questions or take your time deciding. Don't ever feel you have to make an on-the-spot decision. If the seller is wanting an answer immediately, it may be best to walk away from the deal. If they are in a big panic to part with it, then that alone should set off an alarm bell or three.

My new purchase is short term, until I get my van fixed. If the SUV performs well, it may become my daughter's vehicle when she gets her driver's license. She likes it, and so do I. We did a test run to the city (which is two and a half hours away from us) over the weekend to see how it would perform. So far so good. It may just end up being our vehicle of choice for our trip to the mountains in August.

September 2012 Update: This vehicle did become our choice when we went to the mountains for our mini-vacation and it did very well. The only thing I miss for the long trips is cruise control.


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    • brsmom68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Ziomek 

      6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Thank you @lindacee! It basically comes down to "buyer beware", but if you know what to look for (and what to avoid) the chances of getting a good vehicle are high. Thank you for commenting. :)

    • lindacee profile image


      6 years ago from Arizona

      What a helpful Hub! You have covered all the bases. I will bookmark this for future reference. We purchased a used vehicle last fall and have been very pleased thus far. I'm not going to brag too much, though. I don't want to jinx it! ;)

    • brsmom68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Ziomek 

      6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Thank you @teaches12345. After being responsible for my last two vehicle purchases I also learned buying privately is a wiser choice, especially when buying from someone in a small community. They are less likely to sell a lemon, especially if they have a reputation to uphold.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      Good advice on shopping for that next pre-owned car. Your advice is right on and will help many to make a good choice. As you say, it's always good to compare the prices.

    • brsmom68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Ziomek 

      6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      I would be afraid to buy a rental or a previously leased vehicle as well. I do have to say that is not always the case however. My Uncle bought a previously leased truck 16 years ago, and he still has it. It had been taken care of, and the only problems it has now are the brakes chatter when stepped on. I have seen how people drive rentals and I too stay clear of them. Before my divorce my ex and I rented vehicles twice because of accidents (loss of use coverage is a wonderful thing) and he drove them hard. I would not want to drive anything he drove; so many people have the mindset if it isn't yours then you can do whatever you want. I am a firm believer in taking care of other people's property, whether it is a friend or a rental company.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Checking the mileage is a good idea - along with all of the other tips you gave! I had a friend who liked to buy former rental cars, but I am afraid to touch them. I know how cavalier people can be when they rent a car, and I'm too afraid that they've been handled poorly out on the road!

    • brsmom68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Ziomek 

      6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      That is a good topic; many people don't even question whether a vehicle has been in an accident. I know I didn't when I bought mine. I look forward to reading them. :)

    • petenali profile image


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have considered doing several. I have one already about checking cars for previous accidents...

    • brsmom68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Ziomek 

      6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Thank you @pentali! In my recent purchase I was not going for looks or perfection, I just needed something to get me through for a little while. The price was right, and it was in much better condition than others I researched online before making my final decision. Perhaps you could write an article about used vehicles from your point of view, provided it does not interfere with your position on the sellers side. :)

    • petenali profile image


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Your 11 points are good when looking at an older vehicle, and especially when buying privately. When buying from a dealer, I suggest checking online for reviews also in the same way you would check out a seller on ebay. How much negative feedback is there compared to positive. Also, ALWAYS get an independent mechanic to look at the car BEFORE you buy it. If the dealer won;t let you do that, then simply walk away. You have to, have to, have to know what you are getting yourself into or your wallet will not thank you down the road... speaking as someone from inside the car industry.


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